September 11, 2011
Most of the time, press conferences are insanely dull affairs, with routine questions and routine answers and very little in the way of life and liveliness.
Most of the time.
As the clock ticked past midnight, NASCAR's twelve Chase drivers entered Richmond's media center in packs, each group upping the ante on the next. There was tension, drama, humor, the threat of violence and enough storylines to kick the Chase into orbit.
Want to know how weird this press conference was? The funniest guy in the room was Matt Kenseth. And no, that's not sarcasm. Settle in, folks:
• The event began with Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sharing a stage, all looking relieved at Richmond being over. Edwards was frustrated at losing the win, yes, but he had the only traditional driver response of the night. When Edwards was asked why he didn't pit late in the race, Keselowski chimed in, "Yeah, Carl. Why didn't you?" To which Edwards laughingly replied, "Screw you, Brad."
• From there, Edwards and Keselowski wandered into a bizarre discussion about crayons and the little sharpeners in the back of the boxes. It's true.
• When asked about what would have happened had he failed to make the Chase, a clearly happy Earnhardt replied, "Well, I'd have a lot less to do over the next 10 weeks. That's about all, I guess."
• Then came Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin, who were straightforward and, in Hamlin's case, nearly exhausted with delirious relief. But Gordon did offer up a hint of a conspiracy theory: "To know with 20 laps to go you're driving away with the lead, I was feeling pretty good about that. I didn't want to see a caution. I thought it was interesting when I saw a Childress car sitting down this in the grass," Gordon said, referring to Paul Menard's late spin that let Childress teammate Kevin Harvick take the lead and, eventually, the win.
• Harvick arrived next, and crew chief Gil Martin hinted at the kind of inspirational figure Harvick is behind closed doors: "He's always smiles at the race track," Martin said. "A Sunday-morning meeting, it'll snap you out of a lot of things. You can jump over Godzilla after you have a meeting with him."
• Oh, but all of that was just a prelude to the main event. Kurt Busch entered the media center and immediately walked over to confront a reporter for whom he'd had harsh words earlier in the evening. Busch raised his voice to the reporter, and appeared on the verge of stepping to him, when the rest of the drivers arrived and assembled at the podium. Jimmie Johnson was the last to arrive, and very deliberately took a seat at the far end of the table from Busch.
• So there they were, Kurt seething, Tony Stewart virtually daring the media to ask him a question after his rant on Friday, Johnson clearly restraining himself. In the middle of the pack, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman wore bemused smiles, happy to see everything playing out around them. The tension in the room was at visible levels.
• Matt Kenseth showed up just a bit late, and since the three-man table already had five drivers crowded around it, he simply walked up on the podium and sat on Johnson's knee for a moment. Then he stepped aside to take his questions last, which turned out to be a good thing.
• Stewart, for his part, was restrained and answered his questions without added commentary. When AP reporter Jenna Fryer began a question to Johnson by noting that Kurt Busch had said he was "in [Johnson's] head," Busch stepped in to say, "I didn't say that tonight. Did not."
Thing is, he did. It was broadcast live on ESPN, and the transcript showed the quote clearly. And then Busch crossed a line. When Fryer showed him the transcript, Busch took the transcript from her hands, ripped it in half, deposited it back on her desk, and stormed out of the room. It was a stunning lack of respect and professionalism on Busch's part.
• So it fell to Matt Kenseth to take the tension out of the room, and he did so with the kind of dry wit that's become his trademark on Twitter. Landmark Newspapers' Dustin Long asked him about his results coming into the Chase (no finish higher than fifth), and replied, "I thought I was better than that." Long then held up the results notebook and asked if Kenseth wanted to rip it up; Kenseth just smiled at the idea.
• After a few more questions, particularly one about Gordon's allegation of "teamwork" with that last caution and whether drivers discuss such matters, Kenseth laughed. "They all stay locked in their motor coaches. There's no talk ... Nah, that's not true, we all gather on the playground and have stroller races."
The laughter was long and loud and relieved. And as Kenseth left, he smirked and said, "Thank you, guys. You're doing a fine job." And everyone let the sarcasm ride, a perfect ending to one of the most bizarre press conferences in recent NASCAR history.
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